Narration and Tennis

This is my second time reading Infinite Jest, and my second time being relatively confused by the ending. I have to say that the second reading is much easier than the first, and that you really do pick up a lot more details and make more connections the second time around.

One thing I didn’t pay too much attention to on my first reading, but that I noticed this time (partly due to our class discussions) was the use of the first-person narrative throughout the course of Infinite Jest. Or rather, the lack thereof. As we discussed in class, most of the novel is written in the third person; in the first 700 or so pages, there are only a few spots where that breaks and the story is told in the first-person. In the last 200+ pages, however, Hal’s story begins to be told in the first-person, yielding some interesting thoughts and results. One particular insight that I found interesting was Hal’s acknowledgement that “I didn’t want to play [tennis] this afternoon, even if some sort of indoor exhibition-meet came off. Not even neutral, I realized. I would on the whole have preferred not to play” (954). Throughout the last few Hal-related scenes in the book, we start to see his destruction that becomes painfully evident in the first scene of the book, which is the last chronologically. My main question about this passage is, what do you do at a tennis academy when you no longer have the drive to play? It’s clear that Hal still plays tennis at the end (or really, the beginning) of the book, because he’s being recruited for college-level play. So this desire to not play appears to be a problem in Hal’s mind, not one that he actually physically goes through with.

In fact, Hal doesn’t want to play so badly that he contemplates injuring himself so he is taken out for the day. But he goes one step further in his mind, stating that he could “fall so carefully badly I’d take out all the ankle’s ligaments and never play again. Never have to, never get to. I could be the faultless victim of a freak accident and be knocked from the game while still on the ascendant. Becoming the object of compassionate sorrow rather than disappointed sorrow” (954-955).   The phrase “never have to, never get to” seems to be quite indicative of Hal’s state of mind: in one respect he feels almost compelled by some force to play (“have to”), but on the other hand it’s something he chooses to do on his own (“get to”). His fear of disappointment if he can’t compete at the top levels of play-which he worries about after almost being beaten in a match by Ortho Stice-is evident, but even Hal is confused about who he is afraid to disappoint: “I couldn’t stay with this fantastic line of thought long enough to parse out whose disappointment I was willing to cripple myself to avoid (or forgo)” (955). This line of thought is particularly interesting given that it comes in the middle of several paragraphs of Hal talking about both the Moms and Himself; yet the Moms is adamant about not being disappointed by anything her children do or don’t do, and Himself is dead. So who is Hal afraid of disappointing? My guess is, himself. I think that this apathy is so unlike Hal that his contemplations of self-injury seem frightening and disappointing to himself, but he is so out of sorts that he doesn’t notice that he might disappoint himself. Does anyone have any other ideas of who he might be afraid to disappoint? Or why he doesn’t want to play anymore? Is it just fear of losing, or is it something more-DMZ-related, perhaps?

3 responses to “Narration and Tennis

  1. elizabeth

    When you no longer have the drive to play, you do what Hal does: become horizontal and watch the entertainment. We’ve talked about what the entertainment does, and Himself’s goal in its creation: “Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life.” As we said, this simultaneously feeds and deepens the need, meaning Hal is falling further into the womb.

    I think the answer to your other questions is in this passage:

    “It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe” (900).

    Hal feels doomed to a life of repetition: “I reexperienced…then the number of times i would have to repeat the same processes, day after day, in all kinds of light…then began the same exhausting process of exit and return in some dormitory at some tennis-power university somewhere” (897). This is the problem of thinking of everything at once versus the AA strategy of one day at a time. (Maybe this is why AA ‘sets you free’?). The desire to actually injure himself in order to set himself free from this cycle illustrates his desperation. I can’t help thinking of suicide. He thinks: “Maybe the worst part of the cognitions involved the incredible volume of food I was going to have to consume over the rest of my life.” (897). He also thinks about that room filling with the meat and excrement his will eat and produce. The growing distaste for meat ties naturally to Consider the Lobster, and the devouring of other creature’s flesh. Maybe food seems like a pointless consumption (temporary satiation: that is, you eat and need more food and so eat again and then later again), or maybe it is the necessity of the consumption (needing the food to live). The latter means a reliance on something outward in order to survive (sustenance). (He’s also suffering the loss of appetite occurring with marijuana withdrawal). So I feel like he resents the repetition.

  2. This is such an intriguing post! Maybe as Elizabeth suggests, Hal does resent the repetition and desire an escape or a route to freedom out of this cycle. I was thinking about earlier on in the novel, there is a discussion on talent, which argues that there is a fear of not fulfilling one’s talent (168). Perhaps that is what Hal is afraid of disappointing: wasting his talent. The quote, “Never have to, never get to,” illustrates this binary trap: on the one hand, it is a privilege to have this talent, but on the other hand, this privilege can be perceived as a curse–once you have the talent, you have to live up to it; you become a slave to it. Just a thought…

  3. Here is the quote I meant to use, which may shed light on Hal’s feeling of “Never have to, never get to”: “I’m just afraid of having a tombstone that says HERE LIES A PROMISING OLD MAN. It’s…potential may be worse than none, Jim” (168). Hal’s potential is both a privilege and a trap. He both gets to play tennis and has to play tennis. Yes, no, maybe so?